Mandisa was open about her lowest moments in life, even writing a book about depression and comfort eating. The vulnerability and faith of the American Idol finalist made a lasting impression on all who met her, says George Luke


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It’s highly unlikely that when ‘the Two Simons’ - Fuller and Cowell - pitched their American Idol show idea to TV executives in the USA, either of them intended for it to be a launch pad for Gospel and Christian music artists. Yet somehow that’s exactly what happened.

One Gospel diva stood head and shoulders over the many Christian hopefuls who came to the public’s attention via the show: Mandisa Lynn Hundley, known to all just by her first name, and who passed away on 18 April aged only 47.

Born and raised in Citrus Heights, California, Mandisa studied Vocal Jazz at American River College in nearby Sacramento before heading east to Tennessee, where she studied for a bachelor’s degree in music specialising in vocal performance at Fisk University. Originally the Fisk Free Colored School, Fisk is one of America’s Historic Black Colleges and Universities, founded in 1866 as a college for freed slaves. During her time there, Mandisa was a member of the university’s world renowned singing group, the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Mandisa was always proud to belong to such a historic institution, as I discovered when I interviewed her in 2009. She spoke glowingly about its history (the group famously sang for Queen Victoria when they went on a tour of Europe in 1873), and of how honoured she was to have the Fisk Jubilee Singers as guests on her debut album, True Beauty.

After graduating, Mandisa did session work as a backing vocalist for several artists including Sandi Patty, Take 6 and country singers Shania Twain and Trisha Yearwood. She also travelled with the Christian author and speaker Beth Moore, singing on her worship team. Then in 2006, she auditioned for the fifth season of American Idol. She made it through to the finals and finished in ninth place; along the way, she had to put up with Simon Cowell making cruel jokes about her weight. In a later episode in the series, she told Cowell on camera that she forgave him for the nasty comments he’d made about her.

In 2007, she published the first of two memoirs, Idoleyes: My New Perspective on Faith, Fat & Fame. Mandisa wrote candidly about her struggles with food addiction, saying that Cowell’s catty remarks had served as a wake-up call to her to do something about getting her weight under control.

True Beauty, Mandisa’s debut album, was released in 2007. It was followed by It’s Christmas (2008), Freedom (2009), What If We Were Real (2011), Overcomer (2013) and Out of the Dark (2017).

In an industry still painfully divided along racial lines with Gospel (ie black) artists at one end and CCM (ie white) artists at the other, Mandisa was a bridge-builder, often collaborating with CCM acts on their projects, or having them as guests on hers. She duetted with Michael W Smith on the song ‘Christmas Day’ on Smith’s It’s a Wonderful Christmas album (2007). She also frequently collaborated with Tobymac, as well as with Crowder (formerly David Crowder) and Jordan Feliz.

In 2014, Mandisa became the fifth former American Idol contestant to win a Grammy award when Overcomer won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album. Sadly, this was also the year in which her mental health would take another hit when a close friend of hers died of cancer. She became deeply depressed, withdrew from friends and family and started comfort eating again. Her second memoir, Out of the Dark: My Journey Through the Shadows to Find God’s Joy (2022) chronicles how she came through that low period in her life. She also told how after being raped by a neighbour when she was a teenager, she deliberately indulged her overeating habit as a means of protecting her body from further violations.

Mandisa’s honesty, humanity and faith made a lasting impression on all who were fortunate to know her: people such as Velvet Kelm, President of the Nashville-based PR firm The Media Collective, and Mandisa’s publicist for 15 years. After carrying out the painful task of officially informing the world’s media of Mandisa’s death, Kelm shared a more personal tribute to her friend and former client on Facebook. “Since 2009, I’ve had so many wonderful times and learned so much about true beauty, vulnerability and God’s pursuit of us from this lady,” she wrote. “Mandisa, thank you for the HOPE and JOY you brought all of us through your life and your music.”